Smallwood is ‘Next Man Up’ in Sproles’ Absence
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — The NFL is a lot like life, it keeps moving forward no matter what and the Eagles now have to proceed without one on their most reliable players after Darren Sproles was lost for the season with dual injuries suffered against the New York Giants, a broken arm, and torn ACL.
Sproles was on the field for just five plays before going down in the 27-24 win and second-year back Wendell Smallwood was asked to handle most of the veteran's typical workload, participating in a career-high 43 offensive snaps in Sunday's game.
That game-day snapshot without Sproles figures to continue in the long run, something offensive coordinator Frank Reich confirmed on Tuesday.
"There's no doubt Wendell Smallwood is going to have an increased role," Reich admitted. "All the guys [LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement] have some third-down ability, but Wendell has really improved in the area. He showed natural aptitude for it early, both from a protection standpoint and from a route running standpoint."
Back in training camp Reich also explained that Smallwood was "a better three-down back" than the Eagles thought when he was selected in the fifth-round of the 2016 draft out of West Virginia, where he was a bell cow as a runner but rarely used in the passing game or in pass protection.
The latter is the most important part of the job description and often the one young backs have the most trouble with but Smallwood has shown steady improvement and had one really impressive blitz pickup against the Giants.
"He did a great job," Reich said when discussing Smallwood's pass pro. "[Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] runs very complicated blitzes with a lot of different looks. Wendell did a particularly good job on several of them. There's still maybe one little snafu. But those things can be corrected."
The Eagles aren't expecting Sproles, who is so well-rounded, but they will take the production Smallwood provided on Sunday, which included 12 runs for 71 yards, an important reception, and competent protection for the face of the franchise, Carson Wentz.
"I'm not sure you can ever replace [Sproles], I mean, he's just a unique player," Reich said. "But I feel good about Wendell and him stepping up."
You may not be able to replace Sproles from a value standpoint but the Eagles did from a roster standpoint, deciding to bring back Kenjon Barner rather than elevate Byron Marshall from the practice squad.
Barner, a University of Oregon product, spent three years in Philadelphia and was pretty effective in a spot role last season, rushing for 129 yards on just 27 carries with two touchdowns. Despite that, the Eagles didn't tender Barner as a restricted free agent and he signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, ironically this week's opponent.
Barnet was waived at the final cutdown and could fit in as the Eagles main kick returner now that Smallwood is taking on a larger role. Barner is also capable of returning punts if Philadelphia doesn't want to place Torrey Smith at risk consistently there.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen